Research Note on Charitable Giving Between Moral Philosophy and Political Economy

It’s been a long time since my last post. I started a permanent lectureship at the University of Liverpool at the start of September and there’s been so much to get on with, from learning new admin roles, adapting to new ways of doing things (and to the structures within which they are done), and undertaking a professional certificate in HE teaching and learning. I considered writing a glib post titled something like “Reflections on Blogging in the Academy” with the pay-off being a one-liner that simply read “There is no time to keep to a blog”. But I didn´t want to alienate what remains of my dwindled audience.

Last week I attended my first Board of Faculty meeting. Most interesting to me was the presentation we received on philanthropy and the university. It raised a lot of tricky questions. Can we continue to send all our former students requests for small donations when, under the new fees regime, many of them will still be paying for their degrees when we ask them for money to provide resources for people now doing theirs? With a large focus on pursuing now wealthy alumni, business people say, how do we ensure that these individuals are correctly vetted such that we´re not building new labs with blood money? Or, is what we do with the money a “good” that overrides any immorality that might have generated it?

Many universities in the UK are registered charities, and as I talked with the presenter over coffee about some of these issues, I realised that there might just be an irreconcilable conflict between my moral philosophy and political economy when it comes to charitable giving.

On the one hand, I take the idea of giving as an unavoidable moral responsibility from Emmanuel Levinas. GIving here is an unconditional and infinite welcoming of the other, or hospitality for the other, whereby in the face of need we open our homes, or offer the clothes from our backs, or the food from our mouths. (The arguments behind this are not entirely easy – the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is always a good place to start – but this description will suffice for the purposes of this post.)

On the other hand, I tend to agree with Slavoj Zizek that the suffering that charity aims to alleviate is largely a result of the inequities of global capitalism and that using private wealth to attempt to change some small amount of this, whilst leaving in place the system that allows for the unequal distribution of wealth and, therefore, suffering, is morally wrong – and logically incoherent, we might add. 

Now, Zizek is clear that we still do give, and probably ought to. What I want to explore in my research on media ethics, charity campaigns and responses to suffering is whether there is any way at all of reconciling these two positions in a coherent philosophy – rather than simply accepting that we have to contradict ourselves, as does Zizek. 

Surely we must give to the other because we have taken it from them in the first place?

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